The Grand Canyon: Walking from Rim to River
You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it, you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.
John Wesley Powell -Canyons of the Colorado
When John Wesley Powell, one-armed explorer/geologist and his cohort of intrepid crewmen, made their first journey, through the canyons of the Colorado, they were confronted by death-defying rapids, food shortages, tense relationships with indigenous peoples , and such serious infighting that some of Powell’s men deserted him, preferring to take their chances scaling the walls of the canyon, rather than remain under the leadership of a man whose sanity was in doubt.
Powell and his crew would be incredulous if they could see the Grand Canyon National Park today. They might have pulled out their muskets and confronted the rangers at the gate after being enraged by the exorbitant fees. On the other hand, they might have enjoyed steak and cocktails at the Bright Angel Lodge. They could have replenished supplies at the Market Plaza and then recharged at one of the many upscale hotels.
The park has all the goods, services, and conveniences necessary in a sedentary, high consumption society, abundantly available at opportune points around the rim of the canyon. 4.5 million people visit the National Park each year. You can, if you’re able, walk along the rim on asphalt paved paths and take copious selfies. You can go on a tour with a knowledgeable guide will fill you in on the history of the canyon and even throw a little eco-guilt in for good measure. Then visit one of the shops and get your Grand Canyon, T-shirt, towel, cup, dreamcatcher, and genuine pottery made by the ancestors of ancient Puebloans. All this is graciously provided by private government contractors.
For others, the Grand Canyon is a conquest. During the optimal times of mid spring and mid fall, you can visit the canyon when the temperatures are most favorable to take a longer trek down into the interior of the Canyon. Summer temperatures, even at the rim of the canyon are prohibitively hot and venturing down to the bottom on foot is almost suicidal. The sun can be especially merciless to senior citizens traversing the endless switchbacks that take you from the rim down to the bottom of the canyon where the Colorado River flows.
“Hiking and mule rides might not be an option if you’re planning a Grand Canyon tour for seniors, but that doesn’t mean you can’t experience the majesty of the inner rim.” – Grand Canyon visitor center web site. https://explorethecanyon.com/grand-canyon-tours-seniors/
In mid-October of 2022, that I made my own elderly (people over 65 are officially elderly) adventure, hiking to the bottom of the canyon with a full pack, several different kinds of clothing, enough food for a couple of days, Hiking poles, various electronic devices, a miniature gas stove, and Primus cookware.
I had driven out there from my home in New York State and met up with a friend from grad school in Gallup New Mexico who was on his way back from a backcountry trip in the canyon. He had explored the more obscure regions in the canyon and complained that there was very limited potable water, the daytime temperatures were oppressively hot, and the trails were slippery from loose, dry, dirt, and rock scree. He loaned me a water pump, a ratbag to protect food from rodents, and a detailed National Geographic, trail map.
My pack weighed about 25 pounds, which is much more than most people carry on a day trip down into the canyon. An insignia-blazoned, green-shirted trail volunteer asked me why I was carrying such a big pack? I said, “I like to bring nice China and some stemware in case I have guests.” Spending a few nights at the bottom is a completely different experience from the consumer-oriented experiences around the rim, or the hurried efforts of people who seek to make 10,000 vertical foot, 20-mile round trip up and down the canyon or the 26-mile trip from north rim to south rim in one day. For folks who are fit enough, this instant gratification is preferable insofar as you don’t have mess with camping or obtain an elusive backcountry permit, which sometimes requires applying months in advance.
My karma must be amazing for I was fortunate enough to successfully walk into the backcountry office and ask them for a permit for the next two nights. The Ranger said that this was “my lucky day.” She told me that this is a miracle unlikely to be repeated for hundreds of years. I don’t think my good looks factored in. She advised me that there were ample water stations along the trail and at the Bright Angel campground. Also, there were locking metal food storage boxes at the campground. I wouldn’t be needing the water filter or the ratbag. She gave me a permit to camp one night and Bright Angel campground along the bottom of the canyon where the Bright Angel creek flows into the Colorado. The second night would be at an oasis midway between the rim and the bottom. Indian Gardens (the proper name is Havasupai Gardens after the indigenous tribe that had been kicked out of there a few decades prior) is a grove of peaceful cottonwood trees that have grown up along the pleasantly flowing Garden Creek.
There were very few people my age (67) between Havasupai Gardens and Bright Angel. It’s a younger and more athletic crowd. Hiking is like sex: you can do it your whole life if you don’t stop at any point during your middle age years. If not:
“Grand Canyon tours for seniors are anything but boring. Enjoy amazing cinematography of one of the United States’ most beautiful destinations, take in the sights on a guided Pink Jeep Tour, or drive your own car deep into the Canyon to learn more about this geological wonder first-hand. Learn more about our tips for making the most of your trip here and turn your upcoming vacation into a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” – Grand Canyon visitor center web site.
Back in my 20s and 30s I imagined 67-year-old people, such as myself at the time, as the ones that you help across the street. The folks who I met on the trail were often amazed to see that I hadn’t dried up and blown away. I ambulated slowly, calmly, and deliberately up and down the steep slopes of the canyon looking like an old prospector with my hiking sticks and a broad, green fedora to shield my head from the baking sun. Many hikers congratulated me on, just making it there and back. They said I was an inspiration and they hoped they were still able to hike when they became hobbling old geezers like me. For them, it’s inspiration for me it’s perspiration.
I was pursuing a dream that repeated itself every October during the twenty years that I held down a full-time teaching job in Poughkeepsie. When the leaves began to turn I felt this urge, tugging at me during my morning commute. Each day I passed over the New York State Thruway and dreamed of veering off onto the interstate and driving away with no particular ambition or direction, only to follow my dreams. One of my dreams had always been adventure like this to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
When the sun turns traitor cold
And all trees are shivering in a naked row
I get the urge for going but I never seem to go
In the interim two days before my permit kicked in, I pitched a tent in the Mather Campground. There was no actual way to get a site on a walk-in basis other than show up at eight in the morning and hope they had some cancellations. With everything booked up so far in advance it was likely that there would be a decent number of cancelations. On that particular morning, about six of us waited in line for 10 minutes and we all rented sites without any further ado.
During the day I hiked halfway down both the Bright Angel, and South Kaibab trails. Bright Angel was 10 miles to the bottom, but it was the less steep than the others. It was also way too crowded. South Kaibab was 7.5 miles long but much steeper and an elderly ortho risk. I decided to go down Bright Angel for the sake of my knees.
I parked my car early in the morning at the backcountry office in Grand Canyon Village and boarded a shuttle bus called the Hiker Xpress. The bus stop was only a mile from the Bright Angel trailhead but, through a feat of the usual mismanagement, they took us first to the South Kaibab trailhead about 5 miles down the road. I had to pee so badly that I decided to just get off there, relieve myself and go down the Kaibab trail – knees be damned.
To prevent erosion, there were logs, 10 inches round and 5 feet long, placed laterally along the trail every 4 feet in the steep sections. This helped to preserve the trail, but it also made it hard to maintain a crisp rhythm. The continual act of walking over the logs added to the muscle fatigue of the descent. There were plenty of other hikers to commiserate with including an impressive number of young, childless couples from Germany and Scandinavia who told me that they preferred to take there holidays in the fall after the crowds had gone and the kids were back in school.
The creek was sonorous and the evening air delicious. I lingered in the gloaming and slept like a baby in my ultra-lite backpacking tent. Even the freeze-dried food wasn’t too bad.
The next morning my calves ached spectacularly. I had a similar experience a few years prior, in Nepal, When I descended 4000 ft. over the course of five miles on the steep stone steps between Gorepani and the bus to Pokara. As before my calves continued ache for several days afterward.
After a luxurious breakfast of freeze-dried granola with milk (better than it sounds) I crossed the Silver Bridge and began to climb uphill on the Bright Angel trail. It’s another 10 miles and 5000 feet to the South Rim but I wasn’t going half that far. I was headed about halfway up the hill to Havasupai Gardens. For years it was called Indian Gardens but just after I visited there The U.S. Board of Geographic Names voted unanimously (19-0) in favor of the formal request submitted on behalf of the Havasupai Tribe to change the name. Earlier this year, the Havasupai Tribe submitted a formal request to the National Park Service to change the name.
The weather forecast for that night was for violent thunderstorms with wind gusts up to 50 miles-per-hour. Thankfully, all the campsites were covered with ramadas. My tent had two small holes in the top and light rain isn’t a problem, but you’d get soaked in a torrent. The ground was hard as cement, and it was almost impossible to drive a tent stake without completely bending it. Preparing for the worst, I used 10-pound rocks to baton down the corners. The campground was about 80% full. It was only about 100 yards from the Bright Angell trail. For a while I sat and watched the steady stream of down-and-back hikers. A ranger came by to chat, complaining that it looked like a parade. She told me that these caviler speed hikers, and distance runners put a strain on rescue teams that were already overtaxed by foolish mishaps throughout the rest of the park.
I settled into the tent after devouring a gourmet bag of freeze-dried mac and cheese. The wind picked up at about 11PM. l pleut comme vache qui pisse ! (it's raining like a pissing cow) is an expression I learned while hiking in the Pyrenees one summer. This what the rain was like night. The torrents of rain were accompanied by flashes of lightning and heart-stopping thunderclaps. The ramada protected me from the vertical rain but the horizontal kind made its way through the mosquito netting of the tent in the form of a thick mist. All the same, I felt safe and content. I slept like a mountaineer through most of it.
It took me about 3 hours to slowly amble my way up to the south rim the next day. My aching calves kept up a running commentary the whole way. They complained for many days to come but the adventure and beauty of my time in the canyon will remain with me forever.